Updraft by Fran Wilde
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I started reading this book because it was nominated for the Andre Norton Award this year and it met a few other criteria for reading challenges I was doing; it was a post-apocalyptic novel and it was written by a female author I’m not familiar with. This was Fran Wilde’s first novel. The Andre Norton Award is given for young adult or teen science fiction and fantasy; it is presented with the Nebula Award and otherwise follows the same criteria for nomination and voting.
Fran Wilde is wonderful at world-building. Her universe is truly unique. In some world which might be our own in the far future or something entirely different, people live in high towers made of the bones of living creatures that form cities. The cities can be encouraged to grow their towers (structures that are entirely of bone) higher and higher, but they also demand human sacrifices. This is all presented as matter-of-fact. We know that this wasn’t always the way things were because the characters refer to a time they call The Rise, in which people rose up in the towers above the clouds; which they had to do because invisible monsters called skymouths, that have single central eyes and tentacles, live in the clouds and they’ll eat you. We also have hints of the previous world, where there was once metal and now there’s not. However, they still have glass, so I assume it’s not the process of forging metal that’s been lost, but rather, they don’t have the materials. One might think that they have trouble getting things from the ground when they live so high above the clouds; but obviously they get sand from somewhere, so . . .
Almost everything the people use is made from the parts of the skymouths; sinew, bone, etc.; or perhaps the bodies of birds (which are, of course, not in short supply,) or spider silk, or what plants they can grow in pots. Wilde is wonderfully consistent about this and does not allow anything to be made out of anything else, though I think she overdoes it a bit because she has to constantly point out that the knives are made of bone. I think this is redundant, because of course the knives will be bone by default and in the course of the first person point of view, I doubt that our protagonist, who was raised in this society, would take any special note of a knife made of bone.
Wilde’s acknowledgements thank scientists who taught her about bone and about wind currents, but I wish she’d also consulted meteorologists and planetologists, because my sci-fi mind, which took a course on meteorology in high school, knows that humans can’t breathe well if they are high enough in the atmosphere to be above the clouds, which is why we have oxygen masks for depressurized airplane cabins; not to mention that I’m not sure by what laws of physics bone towers could reach such a height without shattering, but I did point out this was a young adult novel so I’ll let it go.
The people who run everything are called Singers, who can control the skymouths with their voices. People have become extremely insular and superstitious, and hold the Singers in almost as much fear and reverence as a powerful priesthood. This is by the design of the Singers, who control people with laws that are enforced by abandonment in this harsh world or by sacrifice to the city. This is possible because there is no paper and writing must be carved on to bone chips, and so most of history and the knowledge of law is maintained through long songs of remembrance, which of course are subject to the same sort of changes and manipulation that any oral history is subject to. Our protagonist, Kirit, has the Singer’s ability, but her mother has rightfully made her afraid of the Singers and so she doesn’t want to join them. She of course is manipulated into doing so anyway.
At this point, the book becomes a fairly typical teen fantasy novel. The protagonist is uniquely talented so she is bullied and people are jealous of her (I personally don’t know why she didn’t punch a certain character named Sellis in the face, or perhaps even pitch her off of a high ledge. People must fall to their deaths all the time and the city doesn’t seem too particular about its sacrifices.) The situation that the character is in is the fault of her parents, whose sins she must fix and who are completely incompetent at protecting her from harm. There is a rigid, stratified society based on thousands of years of history that the protagonist obeys, then sees the flaws of and smashes to bits, despite the fact that doing so puts the entire society in danger (in a way I see the point of liberation from tyranny, but I’m sure there had to have been better ways). She is pitched against her best friend in how best to resolve the issue. I am delighted that the victory is at least somewhat Pyrrhic.
I don’t want to be too hard on Wilde; this is her first novel, and this was written for teenagers. Plot holes and tropes are required tools of the trade. But as a grown-up, I found this a challenging read because of my impatience. It did improve about halfway through but much of it was, to me, a bit tedious.
I am also not entirely certain that our heroine sends the right message. Ultimately she stood up against the tyrannical order at risk of her own life (something I certainly have no intention of condemning,) but she was such a *good* girl. She put up with far more abuse than I would want my daughters putting up with because Violence Is Not the Answer. I think as a species we’re generally agreed that for tyrannical orders without regard for human life, violence is *often* the answer.
So, three stars, because it was good, and it probably deserves the award; but it’s probably better for young readers than for middle aged women like me.